Feds announce Central Coast Coho salmon recovery plan

By JASON HOPPIN – Santa Cruz Sentinel
September 5, 2012

Scott Creek and Scott Creek Bridge
Scott Creek and Scott Creek Bridge

SCOTTS VALLEY – More than 2,000 pages and three volumes, a federal plan to rescue the endangered Central Coast Coho salmon from the brink of oblivion is laid out in staggering specificity.

Meeting in Scotts Valley, officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Wednesday detailed a road map to restore the legendary fish to local streams, slipping from the mountains to the sea for millions years before all but disappearing during the post-WWII era. And with it came a warning that the time for action is short.

“The situation south of the Golden Gate is dire,” warned Jon Ambrose, a NOAA biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Once found in more than a dozen rivers between San Francisco and Aptos, Coho are now found in two: Scott Creek and San Vicente Creek. The population ran into the hundreds of thousands during the 1940s; it is now listed as an endangered species.

The highly detailed recovery plan includes scores of recommendations and a detailed analysis of specific rivers. It covers proposed legislative and regulatory changes, pollution control practices, road and sewer management, monitoring and much more.

It calls for specific activities, such as felling trees into rivers to bolster habitat, restoring estuaries, reducing nitrate discharges from stables and even working with the Santa Cruz Seaside Co. to come up with a way to keep litter from drifting from the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk into the San Lorenzo River.

“It’s really clear that it gives a path forward,” said Lisa Hulette, director of The Nature Conservancy’s California Salmon Initiative. “It’s the best that we have in order to get the fish back in those areas.”

The plan would require cooperation from a range of parties, from local water departments to landowners along impacted areas. In making the announcement, NOAA officials also called on the region to be more proactive in its restoration efforts.

Despite the county’s reputation for environmentalism, federal funds available for restoration projects often wind up farther north, something NOAA wants to see balanced out.

“This area hasn’t typically seized the opportunity to apply for projects to get money for restoration,” said Charlotte Ambrose, a NOAA recovery coordinator and part of the husband-and-wife team that helped develop the plan over several years.

There are some recommendations that aren’t completely feasible. One is restoring the San Lorenzo River’s estuary, with the river now abutting downtown Santa Cruz and the Boardwalk. But there is still room to increase the diversity of habitat in the area, officials said.

Scott Creek has, relatively, the healthiest Coho runs south of San Francisco, and NOAA expects to first focus efforts on Scott and San Vicente creeks. The plan is likely to impact any number of local political debates, including the planned build-out of UCSC’s north campus.

A primary issue in that discussion, being aired through a local oversight board known as the Local Agency Formation Commission, is whether the city has enough water to sustain a larger campus, with the city’s water coming from habitat areas targeted for restoration.

Jon Ambrose praised the Santa Cruz Water Department for working on a habitat conservation plan, saying many agencies, including some in the San Lorenzo Valley watershed, do not work with them. But he also said the amount of water being diverted from local streams is an issue.

“Water is the Achilles heel for a lot of these fish in the Santa Cruz Mountains,” Ambrose said.

“We believe there will have to be substantial reductions from a number of water purveyors to provide for watershed processes, particularly in dry years,” he added.

The plan even puts a price tag on Coho recovery, with the goal being their eventual removal from the endangered list: $1.5 billion, spread over decades. The federal government has some money set aside, but implementing the recommendation would require outside funds.

“It doesn’t have to be all public money. People have shown that they care, and one thing we need to do is fund those projects,” Hulette said.

Local attorney and environmentalist Gary Patton called the plan “a revelation” in its specificity. He was one of numerous people who attended both the NOAA meeting and a later Local Agency Formation Commission meeting on Wednesday where a final vote on the UCSC plan was delayed until Nov. 7.

“It is actually very encouraging to think about an agency that’s gotten into the fine-grain detail, where they really do have a detailed plan to help the salmon. But sort of the global problem remains, which is the water,” Patton said.

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